From the look of his latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, it has taken special effects technology almost four decades to catch up with director Terry Gilliam's imagination. The visually dazzling fantasy revolves around a sideshow, headed by a wizardly ringmaster (Christopher Plummer) and his daughter (Lily Cole) who use their magic in constant battle with a dapper devil (a perfectly cast Tom Waits). Their arsenal contains a magic mirror through which the mysterious Anthony (Heath Ledger) travels three times, triggering a succession of brilliantly stylized set pieces.
The film became immediately notorious when Ledger died mid-shoot—a tragic recurrence of the catastrophic luck that legendarily aborted Gilliam's planned movie version of Don Quixote. But adversity spawned creativity. To get around the issues raised by Ledger's passing, his friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell stepped in to play Anthony each time he goes through the mirror. With its mordant wit and vertiginous visuals, the result surveys Gilliam's career from his early successes with Monty Python to the distended otherworldliness of Time Bandits, Brazil and 12 Monkeys.
Although it's more successful than Gilliam's past two films, Doctor Parnassus is arguably flawed by the very seductiveness of its fantasy sequences—they're so beautiful and imaginative that the rest of the film pales in comparison. While that makes for an uneven viewing experience, however, there are far worse problems for a film to have. The Scene spoke with the blunt but thoughtful director last month.
Lily Cole has a very difficult role. How did you settle upon her?
I just wanted an extraordinary-looking girl. The casting director had worked with Lily on a Sally Potter film, Rage. Her section had already been shot. We met, and she was intelligent, confident and grounded. I thought I'd take a chance. Everyone else in the film I was absolutely sure of. Lily's casting was the moment where I wasn't sure. That's an important moment in filmmaking. You don't always want to be safe. She could have sunk, but she rose. Everyone supported her. Heath immediately realized that she needed support. He brought a lot out of her. He was so intense that he helped her focus.
Your productions tend to be full of drama. Obviously, the story behind this one is unusually horrible. How did it affect you?
It de-energized me. I just wanted to quit. It went on for the whole shoot. I didn't know if anything we were doing would work. I was basically on autopilot. The overbearing idea was that we were going for Heath. I kept wondering if it was good enough to be his last film. When we started putting it together, I realized it was actually working. It was a very strange experience, one I hope I'll never have to go through again.
How did you get Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to come in?
I called Johnny just to commiserate, and he said, "Whatever you decide to do, I'll be there." I found that was the most crucial call, because all the reasonable, intelligent, experienced financiers were leaving. That stopped the retreat of the loot. That didn't solve the problem. I still had to work out what I would do. I needed three actors. I started calling Heath's friends. Ultimately, we managed to sort out all of our schedules. Johnny was preparing to shoot Michael Mann's Public Enemies, and the shoot was delayed a week. He jumped right in.
The most ironic part was that I'd been talking to Jude before Heath was involved. We'd made this picture book to bring out to Hollywood and try to raise money. It included the scene with the ladders. Fantasy became reality, and he wound up doing that. Colin looks darker and more villainous, so he's the ultimate one. Johnny has the best chance of dragging the audience with him. There was no time to rehearse, which was why I was asking for close friends of Heath. Colin has said that he felt like he was channeling Heath. He was a very powerful spirit. All his friends said he was a very old, wise spirit. I joked that he didn't die young but he was a few hundred years old when he died.
There's a lot of talk of death in the film. Did you ever feel the need to tone it down?
No. That's the script we wrote. If I'd been with a studio, can you imagine them letting me introduce Heath with a noose around his neck and lines about his character's death? Heath would have had the same attitude that I did. The whole scene with boats going through the river, with photos of famous dead people, was written long before he died.
How hard was it to settle on the film's ratio of grim reality to fantasy?
My theory is that in big fantasy films, you establish a great world within 10 minutes and then you've got to spend two hours maintaining that world at great cost. You're bored by it. I thought that if we go through the mirror, we could create a new world each time. It's not that expensive to do short fantasy scenes. People think I'm a fantasist, and that's bullshit. I'm so fucking pragmatic. We go in and get out quickly.